I’m framing up the Coen brothers as if they’re appearing in one of their own movies. Joel, the taller, skinnier, more languid of the pair, stretched out almost full-length in the foreground, his legs on a coffee table and his torso resting almost horizontal on a couch. He fills the lower half of my frame. Brother Ethan is more animated, roving vertically in the middle distance to balance the supine Joel, tittering where Joel is prone to drawl.
And yes, they do finish each other’s sentences. For instance, in answer to the question, ‘how many animals have you killed in your movies?â€ Joel: ‘Oh … plenty.â€ Ethan: ‘Uh … cows in O Brother, Where Art Thou?â€ Joel (pensively): ‘Couple of cows in that one. Blew up a rabbit and a lizard, another dog in this one … ‘Ethan (chuckling): ‘Yeah, we’ve killed a lot of animals!â€
The Coen’s searing adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, No Country for Old Men, has just earned them a handful of Oscars: best picture, best director(s), best adapted screenplay and one for best supporting actor for Javier Bardem. Acknowledging the individualism and quirkiness of their work, the brothers thanked ‘all of you out there who allow us to continue to play in our corner of the sandboxâ€.
Such admiration hasn’t come their way since their best-script Oscar for Fargo or the rapturous cult that coalesced around The Big Lebowski. They have delivered a manhunt thriller of mesmerising violence and remarkable narrative leanness, superficially reminiscent of the Texas noir of their debut, Blood Simple. It’s the soberest movie they’ve yet made: arid, spare and free of the self-defeating cynicism that sometimes mars even their best work. No Country for Old Men proves that the Coens’ feel for a landscape-based western classicism, reminiscent of Sam Peckinpah, are matched by few living directors.
Peckinpah is the director whose themes and concerns — masculinity and self-preservation among them — sit foremost in the mind when reading the novel and when seeing the movie, which is a faithful, almost verbatim adaptation. The brothers are amenable to the comparison.
Ethan: ‘We were aware of the basic link just by virtue of the setting, the south-west, and this very male aspect of the story. Hard men in the south-west shooting one other — that’s definitely Sam Peckinpah’s thing.â€ Joel: ‘Especially in the section of the movie where Woody Harrelson makes an appearance. He reminded us of a Peckinpah character in a certain way.â€ Ethan: ‘Yeah, you show a hard-on guy in a western-cut suit and it already looks like a Peckinpah movie. Same kind of shorthand.â€
No Country for Old Men, set in 1980, follows three men in the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong, out in the hostile desert borderlands. Josh Brolin’s character finds $2-million in cash and is subsequently pursued throughout the movie by a freelance assassin named Anton Chigurh, whose literally unspeakable name is redolent of the evil he does. Chigurh is played by Javier Bardem in an extraordinary moptop haircut borrowed from … Monkee Peter Tork? One of the Rutles? Meanwhile, local sheriff Tommy Lee Jones tracks both.
Is Jones as scary as he looks? ‘Oh, he’s a big pussycat!â€ says Ethan, laughing. ‘He wants to pretend that he’s scary,â€ offers Joel, to which Ethan adds: ‘Let’s just say he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but he’s fine.â€ But he’s essential to the film’s integrity, isn’t he? ‘He grew up there. He’s from San Saba, Texas, not far from where the movie takes place. He’s the real thing regarding that region.â€
Rounding out the film’s trio of protagonists is relative newcomer Brolin, who here takes a big step closer to stardom. Ethan: ‘He came in late in the day, after Tommy and Javier. Since it’s about three guys circling one another, what we were afraid of was two very compelling performers and then you cut to the dull guy. We were setting that bar kind of high.â€ Joel: ‘We were very unsatisfied with everyone we saw before he showed up … Without him the whole thing would have been out of whack.â€
And how did they adapt the book so faithfully? Joel: ‘Ethan once described the way we worked together as: one of us types into the computer while the other holds the spine of the book open flat. That’s why there needs to be two of us — otherwise he’s gotta type one-handed. That’s how you ‘collaborate’ with someone else.â€ Ethan: ‘Paperback novels just won’t lie open properly! They flip shut.â€
And what now? ‘We’ve written a western,â€ says Joel, ‘with a lot of violence in it. There’s scalping and hanging … it’s good. Indians torturing people with ants, cutting their eyelids off.â€ Ethan: ‘It’s a proper western, a real western, set in the 1870s. It’s got a scene that no one will ever forget because of one particular chicken.â€
And so, yet another innocent creature prepares to die for the Coen brothers’ art. —